Sarah Braun: Rolex and the Road Ahead

Athletux blogger Sarah Braun takes us behind the scenes at Rolex, where she groomed for Hawley Bennett-Awad and Gin & Juice. She also gives us a sneak peek at what Ginny’s final prep for the World Equestrian Games in Normandy will look like. Many thanks to Sarah for writing. Go West Coast. Go Canadian Eventing!

Sara celebrates while Hawley gives Ginny a big smooch. Photo courtesy of Gamal Awad.

Sarah celebrates while Hawley gives Ginny a big smooch. Photo courtesy of Gamal Awad.

From Sarah:

Hey, bartender — more Gin & Juice, please …

After finishing up work at the barn one day in January, a friend and I went to get some grub. We sat down and immediately started our usual horse talk, as any eventer would do. In our conversation, she mentioned that Rolex was 100 days away. The season hadn’t even started, so it felt like we were very far from it.

Gin & Juice and Hawley Bennett came off a great run at Les Etoiles de Pau CCI4* in France last fall. They did a few combined tests, an advanced one day and the CIC3* at Galway Downs this spring, as well as spent time working with Susie Hutchison, Ian Stark, Clayton Fredericks, Buck Davidson and Robyn Fisher throughout the winter/spring season in prep for Kentucky.

It seemed I blinked, it was April and Rolex was right around the corner. We were about a week away from leaving, and I thought maybe I should begin the packing process. The countdown began; time was ticking away. Ah, Rolex was in the air!

A few days before leaving, a fellow West Coaster and a Rolex rookie Jennifer McFall and her horse High Times came down to Kingsway Farm for a last few prep rides with Hawley. The McFalls had planned on driving their rig to Kentucky empty and then bring three horses back to California with them, including their own High Times (Billy) and Ginny. We packed up the McFalls’ trailer with all of Ginny’s luggage, and they started the journey East; meanwhile, Hawley and I took care of “Billy.”

A couple days later, my alarm went off at approximately 2:30 a.m.; it was Monday of Rolex week! I got to the barn to wrap up Ginny and Billy with “bubble wrap,” and we were off to the airport with the very precious cargo. We loaded the Juicer and Billy onto “Air Horse One,” also known as Tex Sutton.

Hawley and I flew with the ponies and wrapped ourselves up in some of Ginny’s clothes to buddle up, as it tends to be very chilly on the flight. Just three and a half hours later, we landed in the Blue Grass State. Ginny and Billy were the first off the flight that was filled with about 20 racehorses. No, California Chrome was not on our flight — thanks for asking. He was flying out the following Monday. Once unloaded, off the plane and onto the trailers, we then headed to the Kentucky Horse Park.

Once we rolled in to the horse park, we unloaded everything and got the ponies all settled into their new bedrooms for the week and everything else set up. It began to sink in; at last, we were back at Rolex. Ginny knew exactly where she was. This was her stomping ground!

The next couple days leading up to dressage were running well in order: a few dressage lessons, a couple hacks, jump schools and hand grazes. The first horse inspection rolled around Wednesday afternoon. I gave Ginny a scrub-a-dub-a-dub, put her pigtails in and made sure she was all beautified to strut her stuff. She passed with ease, and soon after she had ring familiarization in the Rolex stadium. That night we attended the Spindle Top Hall cocktail party, meeting some legends, such as Mark Todd and William Fox-Pitt.

Then the first day of dressage had creeped up on us. Ginny had a jump school in the morning to take the edge off; later that morning she had a fantastic dressage lesson. While Ginny was relaxing during her acupuncture treatment, I started to braid her for dressage. The time had come to saddle up. Time was counting down, and I was determined to make sure Ginny looked her very best — down to the last placement of her quarter marks, making her a complete, pretty package, the real deal.

Ginny had been so well behaved on the flat all week. We hoped that she would decide to channel her inner ballerina one last time. When it came down to play in the sandbox, Ginny did express herself very exuberantly, but she didn’t show too much of her wild side, and she was well behaved. The scores had been harsh all day, so we weren’t sure what to expect. With a score of 58.7, they were sitting in a comfortable position after the first day of competition.

Friday morning Ginny and Hawley had a jump school, practicing the two-stride angled brushes that everyone was talking about, which I had not yet seen. Afterward, I got a head start on walking the cross-country course with a friend; we got rained on several times. By the time we got to the Head of the Lake, which is next to the main stadium, we heard the crowd going nuts for the dressage test that Lauren Kieffer and Veronica completed.

We were wondering how the scores were looking on the second day, and there were several Americans sitting in the top positions. Jen McFall went later in the afternoon, and we all were very excited for her. She had a huge smiling walking into the stadium and came out with an even bigger grin, which was very contagious.

The air was buzzing Saturday morning with thousands of people rolling into the horse park to watch the most thrilling day everyone has looked forward to — cross country!

The riders back in the barns were getting ready — grooms making sure their horse and rider were all set as they started going out one by one. We heard the announcers calling the action out on course; some pairs were making it across the finish line, and some were not. As a groom, once you hand the horse off to your rider, you don’t have any control over what happens out on course. All you can do is hope for the best, that they come home through the finish fast, clean, safe and sound.

Once I had Ginny all saddled up and ready to run, I handed her off to Hawley. I met them out at cross country warm up. There were only about four, maybe five riders in the warm up at a time, so as each one walked down and left the start box, Hawley and Ginny’s turn was nearing. Jumping just a few more before heading down to the start box … everything fell silent; the adrenaline was running through us. The starter counted down … 3,2,1 … Hawley and Ginny were out of the box.

I ran over to the TV tent to watch the many TVs that captured the current riders on course. They were soaring over everything — through the first and second water, no problem … they made it over those crazy angled brushes with ease and were on their way to the Head of the Lake. Then all the sudden the TVs all shut off and went black, so all we could do was just listen to the announcer. We heard that Hawley and Ginny were foot perfect through the Head of the Lake; it was smooth sailing from there.

They came home through the finish with time to spare and tons of run left. Hawley jumped off, thrilled with her round and with Ginny’s performance. We got everything off of Ginny and let her catch her breath and cooled her off quickly in the vet box. Once we got the thumbs up from the vets, we headed back to the barns for after cross country care and a little celebration.

These are probably the most spoiled creatures on the planet. We do everything that we can to keep these athletes as sound, healthy and happy as possible. Ginny makes my job a little easier; she takes care of herself really well. She’s so light and easy on herself, and the fact that she’s a freak of nature means I just had to ice her a few times after cross country.

Later in the afternoon, it was Jen McFall and High Times’ turn; it was their first time out of the Rolex start box. She came home with a 20 and time, but came across the finish line smiling from ear to ear after finishing her first CCI4* cross country course! Later that night, we checked on Ginny after her great run; she looked ready to do it again!

The last day of competition arrived. Jogs were early in the morning, and show jumping started in the afternoon. Grooms had arrived very early that morning, making sure their athletes looked their best for the final horse inspection. Finishing up the final touches on Ginny, we headed up to the final inspection, once again hearing the announcer say, “Gin & Juice accepted.” After jogs, Hawley and Ginny had a super quick jump school before walking the show jumping course.

Before show jumping started, there was a Parade of Nations in the Rolex Stadium. The riders could be mounted or go on foot. Hawley borrowed one of Selena O’Hanlon’s mounts for the parade while Ginny stayed in the barn in order to keep her as calm, cool and collected as we could before the show jumping.

First in the ring was Jen McFall and High Times; although they had a few rails down, she was proud of Billy and herself for completing their first CCI4* at the world renowned Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, which is no easy task.

Back in the barns, I was preparing Ginny for the final phase of the weekend while Hawley was coaching Jen and watching a few rounds. Once I was sure Ginny was all primed and polished, I walked her down to the stadium. We met Hawley at the first warm up ring; she got on and started trotting around. You could tell Ginny still had plenty of fire left.

Hawley then went to the main warm up ring, where she took a few minutes to make sure they both were on the same page before entering the ring. Finally in was time to walk down the ramp into the stadium; so much can go through your mind in that short walk. Hawley rode to the best of her ability trying to keep Ginny from being the wild firecracker that she is, unfortunately pulling 2 rails.

Ginny might have been better off running around cross country again before show jumping. Hawley and the Juicer finished in the top 16! Ginny got even more wound up in the awards ceremony; she was on the verge of exploding.

The exhilarating week had come to an end, and we started packing up our home for the last week. Everything was starting to come to a close — trailers, horses and riders where leaving, and the buzz of the once crowded horse park fell silent.

The next morning, there were tornado warnings, so we got the rest of our equipment and the precious cargo loaded onto the McFalls’ trailer, and they started their journey back to California. Minutes later, it started pissing rain, complete with thunder and lightning. I never understand the East Coast weather — doesn’t make much since to us Westies. We were lucky our flight wasn’t canceled.

We made it back to sunny California, and Ginny arrived a few days later happy to be back and to see all her friends! She gets to have a little R&R, and then she’ll compete in the three-star at Rebecca Farms as her last run (knock on wood) before heading to Normandy for the World Equestrian Games.

Rolex was an incredible week, watching dreams come true. As a competitor myself, knowing my dreams of competing at Rolex are a very far reach due to many setbacks, I’m lucky enough to be a part of a team I can ride along with and be a member of.

Now, the countdown to Normandy begins — just under 100 days to go! Go Team Canada (and Team USA)!

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